Climate Problem or Solution? California’s Water Sector Is at a Crossroads as Drought Drags On

June 23, 2016 | 12:46 pm
bolvd/CC BY (Wikimedia)
Juliet Christian-Smith
Western States Regional Director

Necessity is the mother of invention and California’s ongoing drought is teaching us that water suppliers can be very creative when they need to be.

Sometimes that is a good thing, particularly when we see water utilities meeting and exceeding Governor Brown’s call for 25 percent water conservation. In other cases, pursuing new, “drought-proof” water supplies can have unintended consequences. Drought-proof supplies, while helping respond to climate change, often require more energy than conventional drinking water sources (see Figure 1 from Clean Energy Opportunities in California’s Water Sector).


An example of “maladaptation”


This post is part of a series on Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change.

For example, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, the largest of its kind in the U.S., was recently completed and provides San Diego County Water Authority with additional drought-proof water supplies, but those supplies have a large energy footprint, requiring around 750 MW per day.

The developers of the desalination plant only committed to sourcing 30 percent of the energy powering the plant from renewables and, therefore, the remainder is likely reliant on fossil fuels. Burning more fossil fuels to adapt to a changing climate is an example of “maladaptation” or actions taken to address climate risks that actually create, perpetuate, or exacerbate climate change.

The water sector is at a crossroads: it can be part of the climate problem or part of the climate solution.

A decade ago, the California Energy Commission concluded that nearly 20 percent of California’s electricity was used by California’s water sector. It is likely that during this prolonged drought, the water sector’s electricity consumption has risen due to increased groundwater pumping (more than half of water consumed in 2015 came from underground) and increased water treatment. Depending on where water utilities are getting electricity, they could be contributing to more global warming pollution.

The difficulty for decision-makers is that many water and wastewater utilities do not track or disclose electricity use, generation sources, and related global warming emissions. Water utilities that are also retail electricity providers must disclose this information because they are required by law to source 50 percent of their retail electricity from renewables by 2030. But the water utilities that do not also sell electricity have no such requirement. This missing data makes it difficult to identify clean energy opportunities.

Water sector can be part of the solution: SB 1425 shows how

Fortunately, a bill introduced by Senator Fran Pavley this year (SB 1425) addresses this challenge by creating a voluntary emissions tracking system for projects that reduce the carbon intensity of California’s water system. This new registry will allow for water agencies, large water consumers, businesses and others to voluntarily measure and track their heat-trapping emissions from water pumping, transport, delivery, and heating.

There is great potential within the water sector to reduce its electricity use and associated emissions. Because many water and wastewater utilities have significant electricity purchasing power and own assets and infrastructure that could host renewable generation facilities or provide flexibility for the electricity grid, they are in a unique position to help the state meet (and surpass) its clean energy goals.

The Sonoma County Water Agency began delivering “carbon-free” water last year and a number of other water utilities are close behind, finding ways to power their operations using clean, renewable sources of electricity, and hosting generation projects for other clean energy purchasers. This is good for the state as it can help meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals. It is also good for water customers since clean electricity locks in a consistent price, which protects against fossil-fuel price volatility.

As the state moves toward its new goal of sourcing 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, investing in clean energy solutions has never made more sense.